Churches Risk Tax-Exempt Status to Endorse Candidates

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October 7, 2012; Source: Chicago Tribune

Nearly 1,500 churches participated in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” this past weekend, an event organized by the conservative Christian Group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) in which pastors were encouraged to discuss politics from the pulpit, and even to back a particular candidate. The event has grown steadily over the years, with just 33 pastors taking part in 2008 but more than 1,000 reportedly taking part this year. This annual effort is intended to challenge the IRS regulations that restrict religious leaders from endorsing candidates to their congregations. Participating pastors were encouraged to “preach a biblically based sermon regarding candidates and the election” and to videotape those sermons and send them to the IRS. Under the U.S. tax code, nonprofit organizations such as churches may express views on any issue, but they jeopardize their tax-exempt status if they speak for or against any political candidate.

The ADF plans to “actively represent any church or pastor who has been threatened or punished for actively speaking from the pulpit.” This event is intended to provoke the IRS into taking action so that the ADF can challenge and try to overturn the Johnson Amendment (the 1954 change in the U.S. tax code which prohibited tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates). Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for ADF, told Fox News, “The purpose is to make sure that the pastor — and not the IRS — decides what is said from the pulpit. It is a head-on constitutional challenge. We’re hoping the IRS will respond by doing what they have threatened. We have to wait for it to be applied to a particular church or pastor so that we can challenge it in court. We don’t think it’s going to take long for a judge to strike this down as unconstitutional.”

While participants maintain they are standing up for freedom of speech, critics of the movement say that it threatens the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) has sent over 60,000 letters to clergy across the country to remind them that federal law prohibits tax-exempt entities, such as houses of worship, from endorsing candidates for public office.

A July poll from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that a majority of Americans oppose churches endorsing political candidates. For those looking to gauge the extent to which political activity is allowed by churches and nonprofit organizations, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently released “Preaching Politics from the Pulpit: 2012 Guide to Political Activity by Religious Organizations,” which clearly shows charitable organizations how to stay within the confines of IRS law. It is not clear why the IRS has remained silent, according to this Chicago Tribune article, and the IRS reportedly did not return the Tribune’s request for comment. The article does point out that the IRS lost a key case in 2009 and has not prosecuted any infractions since. The final list of churches that participated in this year’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday action will soon be released by ADF. –Kathleen Hughes

  • Anonymous.

    You missed delineating a huge distinction here:

    Churches can and surely must talk about political issues whether marriage, abortion, poverty, work, etc. That is nothing new and nothing illegal.

    The problem lies not in discussing these moral and political issues but in advocating for particular candidates by name. If that is happening, it is certainly an infringement of the law.

  • Cindy Cumfer

    I don’t see the freedom of religion issue here. No one says churches cannot endorse candidates. They can. However, if they elect to get exemption under §501(c)(3), like any other nonprofit that gets that exemption, then they cannot endorse candidates. It’s the church’s choice.

  • Patricia Branham

    This was blatantly done at St. James Cathedral on Sunday morning in The Orlando Diocese. Eight years ago the Bush Administration gave over $1 million to the Diocese of Orlando after the Catholic vote was delivered to Bush. An article appeared in The Orlando Sentinel outling the gift. It was front page news. We have separation of Church and State in this country. The IRS needs to get involved.

  • Steve Mayer

    If they paid taxes, they could advocate like any other corporate citizen.

  • gary47290

    I would refrain from discussing politics if I got the same tax breaks we give churches and other 501c3 exempt organizations. These pastors are not being stifled. They receive a valuable benefit from exemption in exchange for not being part of partisan politics. They can give up tax exemption, and go under the sames rules as any for profit company if they wish.

    I bet they will conclude that section 501c3 is better for them than form 1040. But they can’t pick which parts of the agreement they want. It’s a package deal.

  • Carol6239

    Maybe we have just gotten too complacent in this country because we have not had a good old religious cleansing,like in Serbia or Germany, or…you name it.. Perhaps an event like the Holocaust or the Salem Witch Trials would wake America up as to why we have separation of church and state in this country!

  • Ellen Dougher

    It’s clear to be why the IRS ignores churches who speak to political issues from the pulpit…

    (K.Hughes wrote: “It is not clear why the IRS has remained silent, according to this Chicago Tribune article, and the IRS reportedly did not return the Tribune’s request for comment. The article does point out that the IRS lost a key case in 2009 and has not prosecuted any infractions since”)

    The law was enacted by LBJ in an underhanded fashion, and if tested by the Supremes, would be found to lack constitutional muster. It was and always has been a bullying tactic to force conservatives into a silent corner of the culture. It’s time for it to go away.

  • Jess

    Actually, churches cannot speak out on political issues if they claim tax exempt status. According to Exemption Requirements – Section 501(c)(3), the IRS states that tax exempt ortanizations may not use its earnings to inure an individual, participate in any form of campaigning for a specific political party or candidate, nor can they conduct lobying activities for or against any legislative or political activies (ALL of which they are doing, according to this article).

    So yes, it is illegal so long as they claim tax exempt status.

  • Carol R. Bowling Shumate

    Originally, I supported tax exemptions for churches; however, recently, I have witnessed churches being used to further a variety of different political causes. The implied separation between church and state as found in our constitution really does not exist. Churches very definitely have taken an active role in supporting not only political candidates but often lobby for various issues. I do not believe that there is such thing as a politically neutral church. In addition, many churches commend prime real=estate spots, and may be responsible for forcing property values to rise in certain neighborhoods my controlling large plots of land for church use in terms of church-related schools, universities and organizations. In addition, in some cases, churches may lack proper parking lots and the overflow from their allocated parking space may impact the parking available in some residential neighborhoods when churches are located in a suburban setting, or the available of customer parking when churches are located inside a city or small town. No everyone in the community benefits from churches using scarce land or real estate resources. County clubs and other organizations which require its membership to pay “dues” to belong do not enjoy a tax exempt status and neither should churches, regardless of whether or not their members tithe for the privilege of belonging. The community service work done by certain civic minded churches also may be questioned. I have personally experienced in my opinion denominational hiring preferences in personal employment. I have been in my opinion discriminated against in hiring for public service/ community jobs which were in the public domain by members of certain religious denominations because I as a job applicant was not a member of that particular denomination or did not endorse politically 100% of what that specific denomination advocated in terms of abortion, birth control, family planning or some other issue. If country clubs do not receive tax exempt status, then neither should churches.